|November - December 2001
Volume 33, Number
This issue is only available on CD-ROM.The Holehan Long Range Hunter Winchester Model 70 features a custom laminated stock, return-to-zero square bridge scope mounts and a Kahles 3-12x Special Ediditon Scope. Whitetail deer photo by John R. Ford Purchase the CD-ROM here
We camped on the flat under the red
sandstone pyramid. As soon as everything was laid out, Eileen and I filled the magazines
of our rifles, then shouldered aluminum packframes and followed the trail along the north
side of the pyramid, into the badlands.
The trail showed a few pronghorn
tracks made during the last rain, almost as hard as fossils in the red sandstone. Sometime
soon - perhaps on the first ridge, perhaps the sixth wed belly-crawl to the
top and brace our elbows under binoculars and see white dots against a hillside a few
hundred yards away. Horns didnt really matter, though this year I had first choice.
Eileen had chosen a big doe the year before, and I might too.
Once around the pyramid, we dropped
into a draw between low parallel ridges, below the red sandstone into gray-tan clay. We
followed the base of the north ridge, every so often climbing a wind-eroded notch to
When the ridge disappeared in the
sparse grama grass of a gumbo flat, we headed for the next ridge, 400 yards away, and
glassed its notches. During this walk we jumped three desert cottontails, butts absurdly
white in the muted badlands. When the second one bopped into a washout, Eileen looked at
me and raised her eyebrows. When the third showed she bared her teeth, wolfish. She likes
to hunt white-meated bunnies after the dark meat is down.
The second notch in the second ridge
was the highest climb yet, and the sweep of the badlands flowed down to the desert creek a
mile away. It looks like a satellite photo from Mars, Eileen whispered. I
nodded: One of my favorite places resembles a waterless planet.
Then we saw white particles a couple
ridges over. Magnified, the head of one appeared black with horns and throat-patch. A
lower ridge top would put us 150 yards away.
We moved automatically to the end of
our ridge, finding a deep gully that twisted across a big flat toward the pronghorn ridge.
We eased back down, then walked the edge of the gully until finding a place to enter. The
erosional gullies of the badlands have straight sides, cut by hard rain through soft sand.
Somewhere along their edge, youll find where a smaller wash enters or cattle have
beaten a path and be able to ease down, the miniature bluffs rising over your head.
The sandy bottom was broken only
occasionally by pools of week-old rainwater. We found fresh rabbit and coyote tracks and
then the remains of a badlands tragedy: bunny feet and tail fluff.
Lets hope were as
good as that coyote, I whispered. The gully squirmed like a rattlesnake, sometimes
within a few yards of itself. Every 100 yards we peeked from behind a clump of sagebrush,
until we could no longer see the white dots
on the hillside, then climbed out and
headed toward our final ridge.
At its base we slid the packframes
off, so tall aluminum wouldnt betray us as we crawled up behind rock or sage. Then
we eased cartridges into chambers, clicked safeties and headed uphill, pausing often so we
wouldnt be winded.
As our eyes cleared the ridge we
glassed carefully. No pronghorns. We took a baby step and glassed again. Still nothing.
Another step and where the heck are they? Is this the right ridge?
I was sure; Eileen not so much,
since she gets lost amid twisted gray ridges. I went down on my belly, placing the rifle a
foot forward on the sparse grass, crawling to it, then replacing the rifle ahead of me,
one foot at a time, once detouring the tiny hemisphere of a hedgehog cactus, half-buried
in the grassy sand.
Still no prairie goats.
And then, as the ridge top curved
downward, I saw the head of one doe. The head disappeared, and I eased forward another
foot, and there they were, 75 yards away, feeding along the bottom of the draw, white
ankles still visible in what passes for lush pasture in the badlands. The buck stood on
the right, heavy horns spreading wide, throat patch as black as a ravens glance.
I heard a scrape beside me: Eileen, also on
her belly. You want him? she whispered, breath warm on my ear. I nodded, and
eased the rifle upward, feeling ancient ocean sand under my elbow. I looked at Eileen, my
grandmothers old .257 Roberts ready in her arms. Then the crosshairs of my scope
circled gently with my heartbeats, along the border between tan back and white sternum.
At the shot he dropped, and the
others ran uphill before slowing to look back. The .257 cracked, and the herd ran again,
but soon a doe started to trot sideways, then tripped over a sagebrush and lay still, one
white leg above the sage. It was dark by the time we reached camp, the doe on my back and
the hindquarters of the buck on Eileens. The rest of the buck - the lesser meat and
inedible horns - still lay in the draw under my down vest, safe from coyotes during the
bucks last night in the badlands.
The lands we call bad were seemingly
built by God and nature for foot hunters who like to see what lies behind the next ridge.
They exist almost entirely between the Rockies and that arbitrary definition of the West,
the 100th meridian of longitude that divides the Dakotas in half.
Between mountains and meridian lies
the short-grass prairie, which really isnt so arbitrary after all, since it was
built by a lack of water from the sky. To an eastern hunter, the high plains seem to
stretch beyond a horizon that seems both near and distant, a contradiction also created by
dry sky. Back East humid air softens vistas and limits vision to a few miles. Out West
parched air sharpens edges, allowing the human eye to almost grasp infinity.
The dry, thin topsoil refuses to
grow forests, instead lying carpeted by very short grass, deep-rooted shrubs like sage and
rabbit brush and the occasional miniature cactus. To a rifle-toting hunter this is fine,
since grass grows more big game per square mile than oak trees. The biomass of the
short-grass prairie, the total amount of life grown, is mostly animal rather than
vegetable. Hunters like that, especially when there arent so many darn trees
obscuring the animals.
Under the topsoil the earth consists
mostly of sandstone laid down when central North America was a shallow sea, mixed with
clay, coal, shale and patches of hard rock forged when coal beds caught fire, melting clay
or sandstone. None provide much protection from water erosion, so April snowmelt or June
rain cuts easily into the soft underbelly of the plains.
The result is badlands, which
somebody once defined as open geological sores. They received their common name from the
Dakota, pushed west from their pre-Columbian home in Minnesota by other tribes, who were
in turn pushed west by white men who wanted to see beyond the next ridge. The Dakota found
the buffalo prairie, and along the prairie rivers found stretches of what they called mako
(land) sika (bad). The s in Dakota is pronounced like sh in English, the reason some
badlands in eastern Montana are called Makoshika State Park. Other badlands erode here and
there across the high plains, some so spectacular theyre national parks. The biggest
occur along the biggest high-plains river, the Missouri, as the most deeply eroded parts
of the Missouri Breaks.
To a newcomer, whether Dakota
warrior or eastern hunter, badlands often appear desolate, even evil. Lewis and Clark and
the Corps of Discovery traveled through many stretches of badlands from South Dakota to
Montana, but upon entering the heart of the Montana Breaks in 1805, Clark wrote, I
do not conceive any part can ever be settled, as it is deficient in water, timber and too
steep to be tilled. He was right. Nearly 200 years later, few humans find any use
These few include paleontologists, who pull
Tyrannosaurus rex skulls out of sandstone bluffs, and some modern hunters. Badlands appear
desolate, but they are not. In their deep cuts youll find berry patches, tiny
springs and level ridges ungrazed by any cow. Like the prairie surrounding them, they
support herbivores: mule and white-tailed deer, pronghorns, cottontails and jackrabbits,
sage and sharp-tailed grouse, Hungarian partridge and even a few ducks, geese and
ring-necked pheasants. The abundance of prey attracts coyotes, bobcats, weasels, skunks
and even the odd wolf.
In fact, the badlands are often so
full of game its hard figuring out the quarry of the day. One November, back when
coyote pelts were worth serious money, I drove an old Ford Bronco across a cow pasture in
northeastern Montana, parking it just before dawn. Then I walked a quarter-mile to where
the pasture abruptly crumbled into tan badlands that stretched three miles along the wide
plain of a prairie river. I rested the .243 Winchester on my daypack and cut loose with a
First some Hungarian partridge
whirred from the rabbit brush just below me, and then a muley doe trotted out of the
biggest draw and stood looking up, 120 yards away. Finally a coyote came running up the
same draw but panicked when the doe thumped away. Oh well.
One friend calls chasing mule deer
in the badlands the poor mans sheep hunt. This is true, especially in
the big badlands along the larger prairie rivers. Here you have just as good a chance of
killing yourself as on any timberline cliff. One fall I hunted a chunk of Missouri Breaks
near the Dakota border. It had rained a few days before but since dried out.
The trail, formed by now-gone
bighorns and elk, now maintained by deer and Herefords, followed the base of the steepest
bluffs at the top of the badlands. These draws held buffalo berry and a few shelves of
hard sandstone, places deer liked to bed.
I followed the trail easily, its
surface hard-packed by generations of hooves. After glassing the first draw, I hiked
around its head to the next ridge. The second draw curved severely, invisible from the
trail, so I followed the ridge top downhill, then eased out to a clay knob to glass.
The dry clay turned out to be an
inch thick, covering greasy clay still soaked from the rain. My heels slipped outward, my
butt hit the slope, and I started sliding almost vertically down a 50-foot bluff. There
was nothing to stop me except a narrow sandstone ledge 12 feet below, so I bent my knees
slightly, stiffened my ankles and hoped my boot heels would catch the ledge. They did, and
I felt the shock all the way into my skull. I stood there awhile, breathing, then walked
the ledge until it curved around the face of the ridge. I hunted a little more, but my
heart really wasnt in it. What if I killed a buck down one of those greasy draws?
That and other adventures havent
stopped me from going back - in dry or frozen weather. You can get lost back in the
steepest draws, and not in the way Eileen gets turned around in the shallow pronghorn
badlands. Instead you get lost from civilization, and hence most other hunters. Ive
found mule deer 200 yards from a well-used road, as safe from any passing road-warrior as
if in Yellowstone Park. All it took was a hike along the muddy bank of a river, a climb up
a draw steeper than any stairs and slow stalking around the bases of sandstone church
spires. Aside from not falling, the main trick is not to hike the easy ridge tops like an
My last Breaks buck came with the
aid of such a hunter. Id hiked around a big canyon in the dark, away from the roaded
side, then eased up to a yucca balanced on the edge of the canyon. I lay behind it with my
binocular, spotting scope and 7x57mm as the sun rose, eventually finding several bucks,
including one heavy-antlered old boy that wouldnt score worth a darn but was a fine
specimen, a typical 4x4 with about a two-foot spread. He lay under a patch of juniper on a
ridge-end halfway down the far side of the canyon, and I was figuring how to sneak him
when a pickup parked on the far skyline, almost a mile away, and a fellow got out and
started down the ridge.
At first I thought hed seen
the buck, but couldnt see how. Soon the hunter shot, offhand, at another deer,
evidently unsuccessfully because he kept walking down the ridge line, in front of every
deer in the canyon. Soon my buck raised his ears, then rose and walked
downhill, disappearing into the canyon. Well, shoot, I thought, but decided to see if the
buck would show again.
He did - about 150 yards below me,
pussyfooting the trail below the bluff like a smart hunter. He collapsed at the shot, for
once not rolling into the draw below. That was the easy part. Just climbing down there to
gut him was interesting, but luckily the ground was dry. The rest of it - well, lets
just say that stalking a badlands buck can take hours, but not nearly as long as bringing
him out, which is just fine. Hunting the badlands isnt for people in a hurry.